I seek out beautiful places to read, write, and work. This is how I found myself, a few months ago, sitting in the Fine Arts Wing of the Central Library in St. Louis. Vaulted ceilings, glass shelving, wonderful lighting, and a landscape of art books are a feast for the eyes here, and the work space is filled with the heavy, original library tables of the late 1800’s.
Following an hour or so focused on the task at hand, I took a stretch and wandered the shelves, alighting upon Stephen Biel’s American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting. I remembered seeing the original work at an exhibit at The Whitney in the mid-80’s and was drawn in.
What followed was a delightful read. I learned about the influence of Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken on Grant Wood’s pre-Depression era mindset, during which time the painting was considered by many to be an ironic depiction of the rural life of his upbringing. I learned about how his presentation of the theme of the painting changed post-Depression, when it became an emblem of the Regionalist Movement, a piece of Americana folk art holding up the values of the American Midwest. And I learned about how the image has been adapted and spoofed over the years. (For more on the book, see Basinger, Jeanine. “‘American Gothic’: A man, a woman, and a pitchfork.” New York Times, July 10, 2005.)
Not long after this read, I planted myself in front of American Gothic in its home at The Art Institute in Chicago. This was the perfect capstone to a fascinating, really enjoyable learning experience.
Why is this story worth sharing? It is an illustration of the importance of place and time in the learning process.
Learning is stimulated in spaces that inspire. How much do we think about this when we design classroom environments?
Learning is enhanced when we build skills and knowledge while in pursuit of a topic that kindles our interest. How often do we give students the time to travel this path?
Angela Maier’s work on passion-driven learning provides some answers. And I’m encouraged by the recent professional dialogue developing around applying Google’s 20% to children’s school experience. See, for instance, the writing of A.J. Juliani, including “Why 20% is good for schools” (Edutopia, 6/25/13) and “Designing 20% time in education” (Education is My Life, 1/28/13).
Could we rethink our concept of learning spaces and relinquish 20% of our prescribed content — and turn ’em loose?